Values and leadership

I have been thinking a lot about values lately. It’s surprisingly difficult to articulate the handful of things I consider most important and to which I want to give most of my time and energy. (Thanks to a colleague in Psychology who started me on this reflective path during a walking meeting last year).

Last week, I was fortunate enough to attend a small group presentation by our Vice-Chancellor on his approach to leadership. He started the session with a photo of himself as a baby in rural Australia, and asked: How did I get from there to here? With that imprimatur, here I am at 6 months old. To reorient the question in relation to values: what have I taken from there to here? I think the optimism and the cheeky attitude persist:


The VC spoke openly about his experiences as a learner and a leader, and his dedication to Greenleaf’s concept of servant leadership. He shared, and demonstrated through personal stories, some ideas from his leadership toolbox: the importance of telling stories and the priceless value of having a mentor. He asked us, as leaders, to reflect on three questions: What do you have control over? What do you want to influence? And what do you need to know about?

He also offered tips that articulated his values: recognise that you are part of an ecosystem, enjoy networking and learn to listen to others. He emphasised the latter point: it is crucial to put the pause button on sending and switch to receiving. In question time, I asked him about learning to listen. How do you move from talking too much (he described doing this as an early career doctor) to listening better. He suggested having a friendly colleague observe you in a meeting and give honest feedback (his colleague counted up the number of times he said ‘yes but’).

As part of this session, we participated in an exercise to articulate our personal values. In a task adapted from Miller, C’de Baca, Matthews and Wilbourne (2001), we sorted and ranked our personal values from a collection of fifty into categories (from Very Important to Me to Least Important to Me). I found this useful, and would like to follow up in conversations with colleagues to make it more valuable.


A similar task of articulating values can be found at the excellent ImaginePhD website. (You can also explore your interests and skills). In that exercise, my five key work values emerged as: collegial, intellectually challenging, balance, community and ethics. The site allows you to explore these values more deeply, with a definition of the term and some questions to ask of others. (ImaginePhD suggests to ask them when interviewing for a role in an organisation, but there are applications for contexts such as mentoring, starting a project with a new team or, indeed, asking them of a role you currently occupy). Here are some examples:

  •  What are some of the pet peeves you have about working here? (Collegial)
  • What was one of the most interesting projects you have worked on? (Intellectually challenging)
  • How often are you learning new things? (Intellectually challenging)
  • What does a typical day look like? How predictable is the work?  Are there clear beginning and end points for the workday? (Balance)
  • Do most who work there seem to have active and healthy lives outside of work, or do they “live” there? (Balance)
  • Are there social spaces in the physical work environment, and do people use them? (Community)
  • Where do people eat lunch? (Community)
  • What is the toughest decision you have had to make in this organization? (Ethics)

This week I am away at a retreat to think through curriculum at my university, and I am reflecting on questions about leadership and values from this perspective. How are my values reflected, or not, in our curriculum? In other words, how are we creating curricula that enable challenge, nurturing, openness and collegiality? Does the university contribute to knowledge, growth, health, creativity and hope for students and staff? With some of these values, I can answer an unequivocal yes. With others, if I feel the alignment is tentative, I ask myself: can I live with that?

4 thoughts on “Values and leadership

  1. Pingback: A year of books and questions | The Slow Academic

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